Using a Rolleiflex to Make Tintypes and Daguerreotypes

Those who have known me long enough are aware of my passion for Rolleiflex cameras. Back before I got deeper and deeper into alternative photography I used to shoot my TLRs all the time.

Sadly, ever since I got bitten by the collodion bug of wet plate and then thoroughly chewed by the silver monster of daguerreotypes all my film cameras, including the Rolleis, have been sitting quite idle.

A little while back though I did get a nifty accessory called ‘sheet film adapter’, which was originally designed for single sheets of 6×9 film or glass. I used it to make a couple of tintypes a month or so ago. Seeing how I’m concentrating my efforts on perfecting the daguerrean craft, I wanted to wait to write about this project until I had proper sized plates.

I ordered those plates from Mike Robinson of Century Darkroom (best plates on the market by the way) and waited patiently for the holidays to be over and mail to come from Canada. The plates got here late last week and today was the first day with weather fair enough to do this, so here we go.

For those who can’t wait here’s a glimpse at the final result of my efforts:

I decided to bring out the whole gang and let them all play together, so here are my babies – Rolleiflex 3.5F Planar, 2.8C Planar, Rolleiwide and Telerollei. Sitting on bottom left is the sheet film adapter, the use of which I’ll explain below.

First off a bit of warning. Silver nitrate used in wet plate photography is highly corrosive, so be very careful wiping off all excess liquid off the back of your plate before inserting it into the holder. It might also be a good idea to just pick one holder and dedicate it to wet plate only as it will likely begin to deteriorate after a dozen or so plates. It’ll last longer of course, especially if you keep wiping it between plates and after the shoot, but it might start looking rather rough.

It is definitely a good idea to take a damp paper towel and after each plate wipe the frame inside the camera where the film usually rests – these holders push the plates right up agains the metal there and some silver is bound to end up on that frame, that’s the worst part about this whole procedure.

I have heard of people simply dedicating a camera to wet plate only and letting the silver do it’s thing with no worries. That’s not a bad way to go if you’re not planning on using that camera for film ever again — then you don’t even have to have the sheet film adapter — just stick the plate right into the camera and off you go. I like my cameras though, so I’m trying to keep them clean.

One more note on the holders: originally they are supplied with a thin black metal plate to hold your sheet of 6×9 film flat. Luckily it can be taken out to fit glass 6×9 negatives, which is exactly what you want to do if you want to fit a piece of aluminum for tintypes or a silver plate for daguerreotypes in there.

Below is a photo of an aluminum plate sitting in one of the holders and the adapter to take that holder installed on the back of a Rollei. Note that I bent aluminum tape around the two edges which hold it down — that way less corrosion will take place and I can always replace that tape later.

Now, there were two generations of those adapters: ones for later models and one for earlier models and Rolleicord cameras. If you’re gonna go looking for one to fit your camera take a look at the bottom of your camera and make sure that the locking mechanism looks like the one on the adapter. I also hear that at least the older adapters fit some of the Rollei knock-offs, so who knows, maybe they would even fit a Yashica. I wouldn’t buy one without trying it first, but you might luck out there…

Installing the adapter is pretty easy: there’s a little sliding lock on top right corner of your back. Simply open the back all the way as far as it will go and swing open that little lock — the back will come right out on that side and then you pull the pin out the socket on the other end of the top edge. Putting the sheet film adapter in is pretty much the same operation done in reverse. One thing I found is that it fit right onto the C model, while in order to put it onto the F I had to take out the dark slide.

A cool thing about the back: it has a ground glass just like regular grown-up large format camera! To use it you have to set the shutter on B and lock it open with a cable release (oh, and take out that dark slide of course). This allows you for precise framing with no worries about parallax correction and also you can preview depth of field given by any aperture — super nifty! I was using Rolleinar closeup filters, so that feature came in very handy indeed.

Here’s the setup with Rolleiflex 2.8C shooting a Rolleiwide and the plate that was produced.

Note: My silver bath needs cleaning and badly… And I just need to get back to shooting more wet plate for Pete’s sake! That daguerreotype thing has really taken a toll on my ability to produce a clean tintype, so please accept my apologies.

Tintypes don’t take too long. 5 minutes and you’re done. Daguerreotypes are a lot more labor-intensive… Polishing that silver plate takes a while, then fuming, then development, then gilding… Sheesh! However persistence pays off and I was VERY happy with the result.

I think this is my cleanest daguerreotype to date! There’s a few white specs from tiny imperfections on the plate catching the light off my copy stand and also I probably could have developed about 15sec less to avoid some very minor ‘frosting’ of the shadows… I also went a little too wide with my flame swings during gilding and so that’s where the white edges come from, but otherwise I’m fully satisfied with the image.

Here is the shot of a daguerreotype plate loaded into a holder, a photo of Rolleiflex 2.8C shooting a Telerollei and the resulting daguerreotype.

Oh, one final note: don’t forget to pull that center tab before shooting! I sure did once and came up with a completely out of focus plate… Here’s that pesky little tab — it rotates to unlock and slides inward to drop the plate into the plane of focus and then you pull back on it to bring the plate back into the holder and rotate again to lock it.

Finally, here’s a summarized procedure for working the sheet film adapter is something like this:

  1. Install the back, focus (you can use the regular viewfinder for this or ground glass)
  2. Take your holder into the darkroom
  3. Take out the dark slide
  4. Pull the tab in the back and rotate it. The part that holds the plate will pop forward
  5. Load your plate
  6. Pull the plate back into the holder and lock the rear tab by rotating it again
  7. Put the dark slide back in place
  8. Bring it out to the camera
  9. Take the part with the ground glass out of the back on your camera (there’s a little lock at the top left)
  10. Place the holder with plate into the back
  11. Take out the dark slide
  12. Pull the tab and rotate it until it goes inward and the plate goes into plane of focus
  13. Expose
  14. Pull the plate back and lock the tab by rotating
  15. Replace the dark slide
  16. Take out the holder and back to the darkroom you go

The above procedure might sound like a lot of steps, but once you do it you’ll realize that I was probably a lot more long-winded and detailed than need be. I just like to address every detail possible.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this my little adventure. I know I’ll be using my Rolleiflex cameras to make a lot more daguerreotypes. 6x6cm format is great and the lenses are sharp as can be. Don’t know how many more times I will do wet plate, though: a little silver is always going to be left behind and I hate the idea of ruining one of my babies with it…

Maybe for wet plate I’ll try to find a deal on some beater body with which I have not yet had time to form a personal bond.

About the author: Anton Orlov is an analog photographer and the man behind The Photo Palace, a 35-foot school bus that has been converted into a darkroom and presentation area for educational and artistic purposes. He previously created a transparent camera and the world’s smallest tintypes. Visit his website for more of his work and writing. This article was also published here.